Where rubber meets the road

An environmentally friendly technology is turning oil's leftovers into roads.

Turning crumbs into roads. That’s exactly what one Calgary-based company will be doing come spring. Engineered Drilling Solutions Inc. (EDSI) is a drilling fluids firm with innovative, environmentally friendly technology that will allow oil and gas producers to take leftovers produced from drilling wells, called cuttings, and turn them into a base for roads. It’s a significant development, considering truckloads of cuttings are usually dumped in landfills, taking up ever more precious space. Using otherwise useless cuttings to build roads means not only less landfill use, but also less CO2 emissions from trucking and cheaper disposal for the producers. “The thing we’re trying to do for producers is to reduce their environmental footprint,” says Michael Husband, vice-president of finance. “That’s really the hot topic these days.”

This spring, EDSI will partner with EnCana Corp. to build its first test section of road near Fox Creek, Alta. Right now, a typical road base consists of rock that is dug out of the ground, covered in oil and then asphalt. The test section will still have asphalt on top, but within the road base will be the cuttings and EDSI’s technology to pull it all together.

It all has to do with rubber. Many oil and gas producers have to deal with cuttings, which is a soupy mix of oil and rock, as they drill. Usually, companies combine the cuttings with sawdust, which absorbs twice its weight in oil. EDSI takes tiny pieces of ground-up recycled tires, or “rubber crumbs,” and mixes them with the rock cuttings. Rubber absorbs nine times its weight. If, for example, a company had 100 cubic metres of cuttings, it would need 200 cubic metres of sawdust and then dump 300 cubic metres of waste in a landfill. With rubber crumb, only 13 cubic metres are trucked in, while 113 are trucked out. “It takes much less space in landfills,” says Robert Rooney, EDSI’s chairman.

“Ultimately, we’d like to be in a position where we can build roads with it, so it doesn’t fill any landfills.”

Besides providing a greener way to dispose of cuttings, EDSI also came up with a drilling fluid, known as “mud,” made with organic oilseeds and excluding many of the damaging solvents found in typical hydrocarbon-based oils. While its technology is aimed at conventional oil and gas drilling, EDSI’s sights are set on the oilsands. “The amount of disposal that’s going to come from all those developments is going to be very significant,” says Rooney. “Because the bitumen is so thick, to find a way to use those cuttings to build roads would be great.” Rooney adds that once EDSI gets a foothold in Western Canada, the goal is to go global. “The technology that we’ve got can be used anywhere in the world,” he says. “But we’ve got to walk before we run.”